The year of the pandemic, this unusual and atypical 2020, has created some intriguing, very special problems for theater festivals everywhere. Now that theaters have been shuttered since March 2020, how to present new works during annual festivals devoted to stage productions? The Williamstown Theatre found a clever, creative, and practical method of overcoming COVID-19 barriers to presenting before live audiences. Williamstown Theatre Festival entered into an unprecedented collaboration with Audible Theater to preserve the festival season – but in a different format: the spoken word coupled with the audience’s imagination. Now a body of work is available for global Audible listeners to enjoy and experience. Additionally, this is the first time that a theatrical season of work will be produced on Audible, a season comprised of classics and brand new play entries including “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Photograph 51,” Chonburi International Hotel and Butterfly Club,” and “Animals.”
ANIMALS tells the story of two couples, (1) Lydia (Aja Naomi King) and Henry (Jason Butler Harner) and (2) Colleen (Madeline Brewer) and Jason (William Jackson Harper). Just minutes before Jason and Colleen are due to arrive for dinner at Lydia and Henry’s apartment, Henry surprises Lydia with a wedding proposal – something that might be construed as long overdue, given that they have been living together for 13 years. But the evening quickly becomes far more complex when it seems that Lydia’s oldest friend Jason may be the man she has been holding the torch for these many years. Throw in multiple bottles of expensive wine and a few trays of elegant hors d’oevres and what seemed to be a celebration of special anniversaries (Lydia’s first meeting with Jason and Henry’s wedding proposal) soon turns into a knock-down, drag-out psychological battle between four warring parties.
But wait. There are yet more complications to enter into the dinner party. It seems that Lydia and Jason are African-American – and Colleen and Henry are Caucasian – thus making this a tale of two interracial couples. Besides that, Colleen is a young college student dating her far older professor Jason. Henry is also quite a few years older than Lydia, a woman he has devoted years to protecting. And Lydia would be foolish to turn her back on a man who offers her everything her heart desires. But will she?
ANIMALS does an excellent job of dissecting relationships and all the multiple internal and external stresses that are often part and parcel of coupling. Add to that issues of racial inequality, have and have-not beginnings, and the perils of too much education. Is it easier and more satisfying to stay in a dead-end relationship or take the risk of changing the trajectory of your life? The talented cast of four do an excellent job of conveying their mixed feelings and ambivalence towards each other – all the while limited to the auditory channel of communication. Written by Emmy Award nominee Stacy Osei-Kuffour and skillfully directed by award-winning Whitney White, ANIMALS plumbs the depth of human emotions in flawed people who live in an imperfect world.